Sunday, October 29, 2006

Borscht, borscht, borscht, borscht...BORSCHT.

What a fun word to type.

I don't ever remember having borscht as a kid - I guess because my family is from the German-Swiss Mennonite contingent 'stead of the Russian Mennonite contingent. Thank heavens I've discovered it now. But...what IS it?

There are many answers to this question. I asked the intrepid eGulleteers about this very dish 1 year ago when I was overrun with garden beets. They chimed in with many a recipe, and what amazed me then and now is the sheer number borscht variations that exist. Chunky, not-chunky, hot, cold, sweet, sweet 'n sour, sour, with potatoes, without potatoes, with lemon juice, with vinegar, with or without meat (which could be beef or chicken) get the idea. I used to think that beets were the unifying factor, until I was served a soup called "borscht" at the Breadbasket in Newton, KS that beets at all.

So, I guess borscht is whatever you call borscht. But it probably has beets. At least, in my opinion, it should.

I found a really great recipe for a Ukranian-style borscht on, of all places, a website dedicated to New Orleans and Cajun cuisine and culture (I found it by Googling "chicken borscht"; it was the very first result). The recipe is actually the lyrics to a song by Peter Ostroushko, a musician I grew up listening to on A Prairie Home Companion. It's kind of a neat way to communicate a recipe, and it works 'cause borscht is one of those dishes that doesn't require careful measuring - just some chopping and whatever you've got.

I halved the original recipe, and that was PLENTY. Half the recipe, in my estimation, would feed 8 to 10 people really well - but it's worth making the whole thing if you REALLY like borscht or have a big crowd to feed (see the recipe link for a full-size batch). Also, from what I can tell, this freezes really well - I have about 4 pints of it sitting in the freezer to feed the next borscht-craving. It's really a heart-warming recipe - it sticks with you, and it just makes me feel good all over. Must be all those anthocyanidins.

Borscht a la Ostroushko (with modifications)
adapted from "B-O-R-S-C-H-T" by Peter Ostroushko

1.5-2 lbs. chicken parts w/ skin and bones (I used thighs 'cause I prefer dark meat)
Several large springs parsley
1 bay leaf
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
1 14 oz. can tomatoes (or 2 c. fresh tomatoes)
1/2 T. dried dill
2 large beets
2 large potatoes
3 to 5 carrots
1/2 head cabbage (or 1-2 c. raw saurkraut if you like a more tart borscht)
sour cream (optional)
lemon juice or vinegar (optional)

1. Put the chicken in a large pot, and add 2 qt. water. Add the parsley, the bay leaf, about 1/2 t. salt, and a generous grinding of pepper.

2. Heat the water to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and let the meat cook about 45 min.

3. While the chicken is cooking, chop up the onion and the garlic, and saute them in olive oil or butter until brownish and clear.

4. Fish out the chicken, and put it on a plate in the fridge to cool. Also fish out the parsley springs. Put the browned onions and garlic into the pot, along with the tomatoes and their juice and the dill. Bring to a simmer again, and cook about 10 min.

5. While this is cooking, scrub the beets and chop them into big chunks, whatever size you like (no need to peel). Put them into the soup pot, and cook for about another 10 min.

6. While the beets are cooking, scrub and chop the potatoes and carrots into similar-sized chunks. Once the beets have been cooking 10 to 15 min., add the carrots and potatoes to the soup and cook for another 15.

7. While all the other vegetables are cooking, shred the cabbage, and add it to the soup. If you are using saurkraut, I would wait until the rest of the vegetables are tender, and then add it (along with any saurkraut juice). NOTE ON THE SAURKRAUT: I used some raw homemade saurkraut that was lying around. I would not try it with the canned or cooked stuff, as the texture is different, but maybe you like that kind of thing.

8. Once all the vegetables are cooked, take the chicken out of the fridge. Take off the skin and throw away the bones. Shred or chop up the meat, and add it to the soup. Don't cook it too much more (it's already cooked); just heat it up.

9. Taste, and add salt and pepper if it needs it. If you are not using saurkraut, you might want to try adding a few tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice (I like a little acid in my borscht). Or you might not; borscht is a very individual thing. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, alongside rye or pumpernickel bread with butter.

Serves: a small crowd! (probably 8-10 people)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sausages and Grapes

Like Molly at Orangette, I must confess an inordinate and undying love of sausages. Perhaps it's my Mennonite heritage (we're famous for it, among other things); perhaps it's a Freudian thing (how embarassing). But whatever the cause, I love sausages, brown and crisp and bursting with juicy fatty goodness. Thank goodness I've never seen them being made (you all know that old axiom), but I doubt that even THAT spectacle could dissuade me from my sausage-loving. I will eat them in any form; on pizza, with sauerkraut, on a roll, in pasta, in slices, right from the fridge (assuming they're cooked) - I've yet to meet a sausage I didn't like (and my roommate tells me that even blood sausage [eep!] might be worth checking out).

We all know how well pork goes with fruit. The traditional accompaniment is apples, of course, or applesauce - but I've seen recipes for pork with peaches and pork with apricots, too. Something about the pig makes it particularly amenable to fruity sweetness. Well, it turns out that pork (at least, pork sausage) goes really well with grapes, too. I have made this recipe a few times, and it never fails to disappoint. It's wonderful with a side of mashed potatoes and some vinegary cooked greens. On top of that, it's dead easy.

Sausages and Grapes

adapted from Orangette, Matthew Amster-Burton, and Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything

2 hot sweet Italian sausages
1 T. olive oil
1/2 lb. grapes (more or less)
2 T. balsamic vinegar [optional]

1. Heat the oven to 475 degrees (or thereabouts).
2. Brown the sausages well on the stove for a few minutes.
3. Clean the grapes.
4. Put the olive oil in a square glass baking pan.
5. Toss the grapes with the olive oil.
6. Stick in the browned sausages.
7. Cook for 25 min., turning the sausages about halfway through.

This is where I stop, because I've found that I love the flavor of the roasted grapes, and I don't feel the need to go any further (additionally, I hate to dirty extra pans unnecessarily). But if you like, you can keep the sausages warm and put the grapes and vinegar in a saucepan. Cook at a lowish heat until the mixture gets syrupy or until it tastes right to you.

Serves 2

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A year-long hiatus, and Ethiopian Lentil Bowl.

I won't get into the reasons for my long break - suffice it to say, I've been busy! I'm now in graduate school, on my way to getting an MLIS degree and surviving on student loan funds. So far, I'm enjoying myself. I'd like to get back to publishing here on a regular basis, as well as keeping my librarian blog up to date. Please check it out if you have any interest or curiosity in my real-life adventures these days.

With that short re-introduction, I'd like to present you with a recipe that I just tested recently. It's from Simply in Season, the newest in a trio of cookbooks from Mennonite Herald Press. I've only owned the book for a few months (bought myself and my friend a copy from Bethel College's Kaufman Museum on my way through Kansas to New York), but so far, it's served me well. My only complaint is that the plastic binding is not nearly as satisfying as the metal version on the old More-with-Less cookbook.

However, the book's organization is attractive and inviting, and I've enjoyed every Simply in Season recipe I've tried so far. Including this one. It's described in the book as "not quite a soup, not quite a dahl", and I think that's right on the money. When I made it according to the recipe, it came out quite thick, but there's no reason it couldn't be thinned down a bit, if you want a soup. Alternately, you can make it as-is and serve with cooked rice or other grains.

As stated in the cookbook, this is NOT a recipe for those who are afraid of garlic. It should be noted, though, that the garlic flavor mellows as the stew cooks; this might make it less scary to the garlic-phobic. Don't, I repeat, do NOT cut down on the garlic, at least not for your first go-round; it's the source of much of this recipe's deliciousness. Also, be sure to use red lentils if you can find them (they are the source of this stew's attractive color). I'm confident that it could be made with other lentil varieties, or even split peas, but be warned that cooking times and water levels may require tweaking.

Ethiopian Lentil Bowl
(adapted from Simply in Season)

2 c. red lentils
2 large onions
1 head garlic
3 T. tomato paste
1/2 t. paprika
1 t. salt
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. pepper
generous pinch cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
3 c. water
1/4 c. lemon or lime juice
fresh parsley or cilantro for garnish

1. Cover the lentils with water; soak 30 min. and drain.

2. While the lentils are soaking, finely chop the onion and mash or press the garlic. Saute the onion and garlic in 3 T. oil until golden.

3. Mix tomato paste and paprika into the onion/garlic mixture. Add salt, ginger, pepper, cayenne pepper, and 1 1/2 c. water. Stir well, then add the rest of the water. Stir again, then cover and bring to a boil.

4. When the mixture boils, add the soaked lentils. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook until the lentils are soft, about 20-30 min. (add a little water if it starts to stick)

5. Once the lentils are soft, add the lemon or lime juice and stir. Serve hot, alongside rice or other grains, or alone. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro.